PINE RIDGE, S.D. - "I feel happy, I feel healthy, I feel terrific," was the
cheer that opened the new head of the BIA's speech to the students at Pine
Ridge High School.
Dave Anderson, newly confirmed Assistant Secretary for Indian affairs, may
at first blush appear more like a motivational speaker, which he is, than
the head of a bureau that has the fate of Indian country in his hands.
His opening remarks told students they are the future of Indian country and
that education is important in their lives, then he became a cheerleader
trying to stir the students' emotions and create an energetic response.
"Some of you think this is hokey. We need to start letting the world know
that as Indian people we can be proud. So on the count of three - I feel
happy, I feel healthy, I feel terrific," to which the students responded
"You know, I don't have to be here, I have a lot of work to do. And some of
you are thinking that you don't have to be here either, but some of you in
this audience really care about your future."
This is not something people have seen in assistant secretaries, probably
ever. Usually the seriousness of the issues between tribes and the federal
government create subdued and pensive behavior among those who are
appointed to oversee the government's trust to the tribes, but this BIA
leader is cut from a different cloth.
Anderson proceeded to tell his story of a young Ojibwe/Choctaw youth who
grew up in west Chicago and rose up from that tough neighborhood to become
a multi-millionaire. He wants young people to know that they can also
achieve their dreams.
With the energy of a southern gospel preacher, Anderson challenged the
students to "be true to their dreams" and become leaders and not followers
while working to make a difference in their communities, to leave them
"better because you are here."
But what about the tribal leaders that meet with Anderson to talk about
trust reform, reorganization, budget cuts, consultation, education,
economic development and reservation infrastructure?
"I get them up doing the cheers. If you don't get out of your comfort zone
you will get what you always get. I want them to discuss the solutions, not
talk about the problems. We need some fresh air," Anderson said. He added
that that change for Indian country will not come from Washington D.C., "it
will come from the kids who must follow their dreams to be successful."
People will have tough times he said, but young people and leaders have to
be resilient and tough. "We will break the cycle of poverty and accomplish
our dreams. That's the most important message," he said.
A comment to Oglala President John Yellow Bird Steele was that Anderson
made the students "rock." Steele replied with the comment that he hoped
they would rock in the future. Anderson said they would.
Anderson made a tour of schools in the Great Plains region at the request
of tribal leaders who had heard him speak. During the visit he did not
spend any length of time with tribal leaders, but mostly with young people.
The short tour to the Great Plains did not allow Anderson the opportunity
to gain detailed insight to what tribal leaders of the large land-based
tribes consider important and essential issues for the growth and success
of the reservations.
Senators Tim Johnson, D.-S.D. and Tom Daschle, D-S.D. each encouraged
Anderson to spend time with the leaders and hear concerns, not only about
schools and education, but about what the BIA, Congress and the White House
could do to improve conditions in Indian country.
But Anderson's visit was for the students, and he incorporated his energy
and his life story. Ed Parisien, director of BIA education said he was
inspired by Anderson to approach his position with a more positive attitude
and also encourage that same approach in problem solving.
Anderson said he was shy as a young man, lived in hopelessness and decided
he wanted something better. He stood in front of a mirror to overcome a
speech impediment, spoke to himself and would even shake his own hand and
smile and wink at himself in the mirror, he said.
On the outskirts of a reservation in northern Wisconsin he started a
restaurant, where most people said he would fail, because no American
Indian had ever been successful with a business. "Now it is a national
success with 90 restaurants," he said. The business is known as Famous
Dave's, where ribs are the main item on the menu.
"Believe in your dreams, never give up, someday your dreams will come
Anderson also said he was a mediocre student with grades of Cs, Ds, and Fs,
but he also, without a bachelor's degree attended Harvard and achieved a
He is also a recovering alcoholic that escaped death three times. His
message to the students was to live alcohol and drug free. That is why some
tribal leaders wanted him to speak with the students at the BIA schools, he
said. He also spoke with students on the Cheyenne River Reservation, where
a recent suicide impacted the students.
"We need you to know that education is important, that knowledge is power,
we need you as Indian people to study hard and make a difference. Be the
best that you can be.
Anderson said it didn't matter where people come from and doesn't matter
that a person went through some tough times, what mattered was that from
"this day forward you start believing in yourself.
"Start believing in yourself, so that as Indian people we can change the
circumstances that we have been accustomed to. At one time I wished I
wasn't born Indian, I wished I didn't live where I did, I wanted something
better. But I realized that change doesn't happen out there - you see, all
change in life happens within you."
Anderson told the students that the leadership of Indian country was within
that room, they only needed to pursue their dreams to make it come true.